Signal-to-Noise: All-in and No Fear

Michael Downing did something most of us daydream about before going back to typing, turning a wrench, or foaming a latte. He quit his day job to put it all on the line for his music, a solo act called Signal-to-Noise. He shut himself in his Chicago apartment to compose, record and produce his first album, I Won’t Let the World Become a Prison.

“Signal-to-Noise is a reminder to live in the present, look inwards, turn down the noise, and find your signal,” says Downing on his website. As an artist with a wide range, that’s pretty much exactly what he’s doing.

I Won’t Let the World Become a Prison is a search in progress. Self-described as “electro-rock/dream-pop”, Downing layers instruments and his own vocals to create an album that can be soothing one minute and unsettling the next. Sometimes simultaneously. A good example of this is a stretch on the album in songs 4-6—Avenall, Biologic, and Night Owl—a small journey that explores both dream states and anxious energy.

What Downing delivers with I Won’t Let the World Become a Prison deserves our admiration. But, as I’m sure Downing would tell you himself, the music is what matters. There is serious talent on this album—both in pure instrumental skill and composition. We would not be surprised to see Downing’s music get greater attention in the months to come. And any band would be wise to consider an attempt to pry him away from the solo scene.

We love a meticulous musical exploration. Have a listen below. The full album is now available on iTunes, and you can also see an acoustic Signal-to-Noise set on Saturday, May 9 at Chicago Bagel Authority at 6 PM.

The Gnar Wave Rangers Bringing it to The Abbey Pub

Looking for a band to see in Chicago this weekend? The Gnar Wave Rangers will play Abbey Pub this Saturday. And you should gather up a couple friends with open minds and a thirsty disposition, and go see them.

Admittedly, we know very little of The Gnar Wave Rangers aside from two facts: “Gnar” means “Get Nasty and Rich”; and judging by the lineup, these guys are happy to poke fun of themselves and you, too.

Johnny Swoon-VØX
Spicey Mang-BA$$
Butterscotch Bill-DRUM$
Gnat Riddler-GU!TAR

The sound is a melting pot of punk, low-fi rock, and funk. Allow me to use a few tracks from their new release, #GetNastyAndRich, as examples.

Crazy 4 Ur Luv reminds me of the delightful and melodic wackiness of Frank Zappa.
Moon Snake is an all-out scream fest.
Freddy Free Me evokes the sounds of your favorite Brit punk.
There is a Light channels The Editors and Psychedelic Furs.

And that’s all within the front half of the new album.

To sum it up, The Gnar Wave Rangers are eclectic, they’re going to f@#% s#!$ up at The Abbey, and you’re going to have fun.

You can listen to #GetNastyAndRich here.

Buy tickets to the show here.

The Random Kids: Delightfully Different

Paul Leo and Evan Munz are The Random Kids—two 23-year-old guys from Oak Park who are damn determined to do it independently. They wrote, recorded, and produced their latest album, Dire Dire Docks, all on their own. (They got some help with the album cover but we won’t hold that against them.)

Dire, Dire Docks plays out like a band exploring their favorite styles of music without being overly concerned about landing on one particular sound. And as a fully independent outfit, why the hell not? While it might sometimes lead to a lack of cohesion (trying really hard not to use ‘random’ here), that’s easily overshadowed by the sheer enjoyable nature of the songs. The Random Kids give off an undeniably pleasant, breezy vibe—perfect for your bluetooth beer cooler at the backyard barbecue.

But where are the comparisons, you say? OK, fine.

Throughout the album you’re going to hear some Local Natives. Sometimes the songs dip into Beach Boys territory. If you’re looking for some retro 80’s sounds, you’re going to get them from time to time. And some of the more playful tracks remind us a little of… The Monkees. Not exactly what you’d expect to come out of the Chicago suburbs, Yale, and Indiana University, eh? But hey—when were fulfilled expectations ever all that fun anyway? Dire, Dire Docks is fun—plain and not so simple. Even if you can’t put your finger on it, The Random Kids have something going on here.

Have a listen to the album below. A few of our early favorite tracks are “Five Itty Bitty Secrets” and “Swingin’ in the Breeze.”
It’s also available as a free download, here.

Welcome Milwaukee’s The New Red Moons

When you get an email about a trio from Milwaukee releasing their sophomore album, you expect to hear something down to earth. Perhaps understated but bar-worthy. What doesn’t immediately come to mind is “sophisticated” or “intriguing.”

But that’s exactly what you get with The New Red Moons and their new album, Mesmérisme.

These guys are tight. Joe McIlheran’s vocals are precise and controlled while his guitar riffs compliment, rather than complicate the overall arrangement. Kavi Laud’s drums and Jeff Brueggeman’s bass roll right along too, so that the songs are what shine, not any of the individual musicians. In my book, that’s a hell of a good start to a new-ish band.

But what does it sound like? Well, if you haven’t hit the play button on the video below, I’d put it something like this: I hear Queen. I hear Muse. I hear backwater blues, and a little foot-stomp. The New Red Moons are a little difficult to pin down, which is good. “Cheating on You” brings a kind of bluesy slow funk vibe. “This Can’t Be the End” carries some front porch swing feelings with it. Together, on the same album, it works.


If I had to pick on anything, it’s a couple of the ballads. While heartfelt and somewhat relaxing, they don’t seem play to the strengths of the band just yet. It’s a small nit to pick.

Mesmérisme is available for download on The New Red Moons website. We’ve already listened to it several times and it gets better with each spin. Vinyl will be available on July 11. Here’s something else I like about this band, from their website: “Like the last album, we limited ourselves to what we could play live, and that meant no double tracking, and no trickery.”

You can catch them live in Milwaukee, July 11 at Club Garibaldi, and in Chicago, July 24 The Abbey’s Green Room. (Gents, bring your own Spotted Cow. Chicago lacks it.)

Mumford & Sons’s Ballsy Career Move

One way bands explode on the music scene and sell millions of records is to spearhead an entire genre at the right time. Take Mumford & Sons–they’ve made countryside rocking bluegrass hot, and themselves a big pile of money.

Then the bandwagon gets heavy, slow, and plodding. The idyllic countryside becomes a chic marketing strategy (looking at you, Lumineers) and the music becomes a little less pure, a little more annoying–almost insulting. If not careful, the spearhead becomes dead weight.

So how do you stop from becoming a punchline? If you’re Mumford & Sons, you plunge the spearhead deep into the shriveling heart of the genre itself. You parody yourselves and every quality people will eventually hate you for–the down-home posture; the banjo shredding; the brotherly harmonies; the emotional orgasm of every song. And you do it with a music video featuring some of the most likable actors of your target demographic.

You might think this would be band suicide. And I guess that’s possible. But a preemptive strike such as this forces you to take a side. It places a decision at your feet–whether you will remain a fan of the music (and the band) for what is, not just when it is. It’s a decision that Mumford & Sons knows damn well you’d make anyway, eventually. Only now, it’s on their terms. They just took control of their own fate.

My decision is made. Long live Mumford.